I’ve just re-read the classic study “Unskilled and unaware of it” which established that when we’re incompetent at something we’re often so incompetent that we don’t realise that we’re incompetent. I had forgotten that it starts with a wonderful story about an inept bank robber.
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras (Fuocco, 1996).
We bring up the unfortunate affairs of Mr. Wheeler to make three points. The first two are noncontroversial. First, in many domains in life, success and satisfaction depend on knowledge, wisdom, or savvy in knowing which rules to follow and which strategies to pursue. This is true not only for committing crimes, but also for many tasks in the social and intellectual domains, such as promoting effective leadership, raising children, constructing a solid logical argument, or designing a rigorous psychological study. Second, people differ widely in the knowledge and strategies they apply in these domains (Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989; Dunning, Perie, & Story, 1991; Story & Dunning, 1998), with varying levels of success. Some of the knowledge and theories that people apply to their actions are sound and meet with favorable results. Others, like the lemon juice hypothesis of McArthur Wheeler, are imperfect at best and wrong-headed, incompetent, or dysfunctional at worst.
Perhaps more controversial is the third point, the one that is the focus of this article. We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine. As Miller (1993) perceptively observed in the quote that opens this article, and as Charles Darwin (1871) sagely noted over a century ago, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” (p. 3).
This effect has since been named the Dunning-Kruger effect after the authors of the study.
Link to PubMed entry for study.